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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie (reflecting on our season back home) (Travels with my uke)

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

Don McClean wrote his iconic song, "American Pie", 51 years ago. The song was released when I was entering high school, and it was Number 1 on the charts for a couple of months, even though it was almost 9 minutes long. It was part of the soundtrack of my high school years. The song held fascination for me and my classmates, because the lyrics were mysterious and dark, but the chorus was easy to sing and felt musically upbeat. Over the decades, its meaning has been the focus of much debate among McClean's Boomer cohort - most of which he debunked in a 2022 documentary. I think for those of us who came behind the Boomers - the "Generation Jones" group - we heard the song filtered through the cultural events of our time. For us, the "bad news on the doorstep" was a series of assassinations in the mid to late 1960s. I can remember picking up the newspaper from our doorstep in June, 1968, taking it to my Mom and hearing her say, "Oh no, not again!" The headline that date: "RFK shot in Los Angeles!" This news on the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in April, just two months earlier, when I saw my Dad cry for the first time. And, of course, both of these horrific events were just a few years after JFK's assassination, the first major cultural event I remember.

Likewise, when McClean sings, "There we were all in one place, a generation lost in space" I see myself in my grade school cafeteria every time there was an Apollo space launch, watching the rocket go off. (My daughter - born in 1985 - says that lyric evokes for her the billionaire space-race, with "no place left to go" being a world destroyed by climate change). Other lyrics resonate with me: I, and a lot of my friends in college, perused Marx and struggled with religion. I experimented with a lot of religious traditions, settling eventually on non-belief, so for me, when "The father, son, and the holy ghost....took the last train for the coast" it makes me think of my own religious journey, "The church bells all were broken."

Mine was a generation where the Watergate hearings took place during the summer after American Pie was released. Two years later - the summer before my senior year in High School - I was in France when President Nixon resigned.

Saying "good-bye" to American Pie is a good-bye to a nostalgic idyllic America that never really existed. While the Cleavers and the Nelsons lived perfect suburban lives on TV, actual dysfunctional families existed on every block, and discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation were more the norm than the exception.

And so, the distressed state of American culture evident in the song spoke to me then and speaks to me now. But too, the upbeat tune and sing-along catchy chorus reveal a solidarity in the experience. When you see Don McClean sing live, he always invites the audience to sing along and, they always do. The jester sings in a voice that "belongs to you and me" - no culture is stagnant, and the song also points to some growth and change.

So too our time this season back in the USA. There is much discord and trouble, but I feel some unity in the reactions to that discord. We are eager to get back to our travels, and we are headed to Australia via a 36-night cruise out of Seattle at the end of this week. The season at home has reminded me of the things I value about being home - mostly time with family and friends, connections that run deep. And, feasting on local corn on the cob and fresh tomatoes in Michigan, Kentucky, Seattle, and Wisconsin - enjoying a surfeit of BLTs with fresh tomatoes.

And so we see one more sunrise over Lake Michigan, enjoy one more serving of Hippie Hash at the Fleetwood Diner, and then take one last plane to the coast to embark on the next adventure.


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